Posts Tagged With: Bleeding heart libertarianism

Ron Paul and The “Virtue” of Compromise

Our newest blogger, Radagast, begins his commentary at Beyond the GOP with a criticism of Ron Paul. He brings up an important point when he writes:

 [Ron Paul] is neither an ideologue nor a narcissist . . . but his uncompromising commitment to his principles is politically objectionable in my view. . . The “games” of American politics are utterly corrupt and broken, but the game is the game. It is not a concession to choose to play it when you know you can’t win everything. Compromise is not a dirty word – it is a necessary element of a just and enduring order.

First of all, one might reasonably ask: if the game really is “utterly corrupt and broken,” why continue to play it?

But the crux of Radagast’s argument comes later. He asserts that Ron Paul wrongly sticks to “moralism in an imperfect world.” Rather than doing that, Paul supposedly needs to learn from Machiavelli and Bill Clinton—he needs to learn to get his hands dirty to achieve what he wants. According to Radagast, a successful politician needs to adopt morally grayer means to achieve his (good) ends.

The issue of reconciling political means to ends is one that constantly reoccurs, especially in marginalized and relatively powerless groups like our own.

Yet, as in much else, I think the best discussion of the issue comes from Murray Rothbard, who argued that there really is no conflict between the two. Every end requires means to attain it, so the means can only be justified to the extent that the end can—and if an end can’t be justified, then no means can either. Conversely, if a particular means is bad, that can only mean that it is inconsistent with a more important end.

To bring this down to earth: I see nothing wrong with Ron Paul voting for a 1% tax cut, even though I would prefer a 50% or—best of all—100% decrease. My end is to roll back the government until it can drown in a teacup—the quicker we can accomplish that the better. Still, the 1% decrease might just be the best we can get at the moment, so it would be pointless to hold out for more if more were not forthcoming. Here there is no conflict between means and ends; the means are less than we might like, but they are still consistent with the ultimate goal.

On the other hand, Paul would be unjustified if, for instance, he threatened to murder the congressional Democrats unless they agreed to a bigger tax decrease. Murder is even worse than taxes, so by threatening it Paul would be acting inconsistently with another important end. He would also be unjustified if he promised his support for, say, ethanol subsidies in return for tax cuts—the classic “one step forward, two steps back.”

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But just because sometimes a half-way measure is the best we can realistically accomplish, that doesn’t mean that compromise is somehow a good in itself. As G.K. Chesterton memorably put it, “Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.”

It appears that many of Ron Paul’s critics take the “modern statesman’s” approach and value compromise for its own sake. But if they do, then they have little to worry about. Most everyone who doesn’t write for Mother Jones understands that the Republicans are nowhere near adopting laissez-faire purism. Those of us who can remember back to last month might recall how the Republicans ultimately capitulated to tax increases and then agreed to a truce over the debt ceiling. Those of us who follow politics a little more closely might also remember the Ron Paul-endorsed Kerry Bentivolio call himself “not really a Ron Paul person” after he was elected. Or the supposedly “libertarian” senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee’s attacks on Chuck Hagel’s non-aggressive foreign policy during the recent confirmation hearings. And of course, Rand Paul’s own deviations from his father are well-documented. If anything, the “uncompromising” politicians quickly start compromising once their careers begin. Despite what Radagast might fear, Machiavelli is alive and well in Washington.

By contrast, Ron Paul is so popular because he stands out from the crowd. He doesn’t compromise, while everyone else does. Does anyone really believe that he would have made more of an impact if he conducted his career like Lamar Alexander? Sure, he hasn’t had many political successes, but he did open up a whole generation to libertarian ideals. That’s a huge accomplishment. As for Lamar Alexander . . . well, you can look him up on Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, Radagast is correct that the Right needs to do more than just nay-saying. Ron Paul has done great things, but we need something more if we eventually want to win.

The problem is that most of the solutions offered essentially constitute a surrender of principle—they are inconsistent with ultimate goals. We hear incessantly, for instance, that Republicans need to make their peace with the welfare state or accept mass immigration. But if that’s what it takes to win, then what’s the point of winning? Just being able to say “We won” is small consolation for embracing and ratifying destructive political principles. To take a less dramatic example being willing to “vote trade”—swapping a vote for higher taxes in exchange for spending cuts—is almost as bad. If our ultimate goal is rolling back the government, it is hard to come up with a non-sophistical justification for how higher taxes will accomplish that.

So what then to do?

I’m not exactly sure. But I do see some promising options. For instance, I have written here before about “bleeding heart libertarianism” and about the states’ rights/Tenth Amendment movement. Though the two movements seem very different, they are both strategic, political means of advancing good ends without violating higher principles. They’re both about making libertarian or conservative ideas appeal to a wider array of normal, working people. As such, I think they offer much more promising avenues for change than some fuzzy “compromise.”

They are both incomplete and wouldn’t lead to any kind of victory overnight. But they are still helpful in the long-run by re-branding libertarian goals while staying true to libertarianism. I’m sure there are many other options too. Off the top of my head, opposition to war and support for breaking the state’s intellectual property grants are two other issues where pure libertarianism could be widely popular.

Above all, we just can’t lose sight of principle. I fear that Radagast’s proscriptions would do just that. They would turn the Republican Party into a party of Lamar Alexanders, not a party willing to fight for the principles we share.

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Jason Brennan: Why Most Voting Is Immoral

Speaking of uninformed voting, Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians calls the entire practice “morally rotten.”  His argument is elegantly simple:

In the market, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme. One of the vile and repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people–people who should be my civic friends–into my civic enemies. . . .

The overwhelming majority of them haven’t put in the proper care to develop their political beliefs in a rational way, on the basis of the best available evidence. They are like drunk drivers who force me to drive with them. They are like incompetent surgeons who force me to go under their knives. They are like jurors trying a capital murder case, who find the defendant guilty without having paid attention to the evidence, or because they evaluated the evidence in a bigoted or irrational way.

Those who exercise power over others have a moral duty to do so competently and in good faith. The overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens will violate this duty today. This makes them my enemies, when they should have been my friends.

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“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–“bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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